By reviewing her roots she continues to grow

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

After I finished reading Linda Joy Myers’ first memoir, Don’t Call Me Mother, I did what I always do. I allowed my imagination to retrace the journey. By actively imagining the story, and then finding words to express what I experienced as a reader, I completely absorb the story.

In addition to my immersion in the story itself, I look outside the book, at interviews, Song of the PLains by Linda Joy Myerscorrespondence or blog posts, for insights into the author’s experience of writing it. What motivation sustained her through the long, difficult journey to develop her own story? And by writing the memoir, how has she grown and changed?

In the case of Linda Joy Myers’ Don’t Call Me Mother, the way writing the memoir changed her life has been nothing short of astounding.

By writing the memoir, she discovered the power of turning the pain and confusion of childhood into a good story. The rewards she gained from this process inspired her to pass along the methodology to other people. She became a teacher, coach, thought leader and “connector.” By founding the National Association of Memoir Writers, she has helped thousands of individuals gain insight into their own memoir-writing process.

Linda Joy Myers’ experience demonstrates the powerful notion that writing a memoir can not only change your own life but also the lives of many people who come within its influence.

Now, after reading Linda Joy’s second memoir, Song of the Plains, I again pursue my two-part inquiry.

By allowing my imagination to retrace her steps through this memoir, I see us traveling together on an adult’s journey to understand her earlier self. The memoir is a call to the past, a need for finding the roots of the self, beyond one’s own childhood, into the roots of family and ancestors. The hero engages in a sort of angelic wrestling match between an individual who wants to understand her ancestral roots, and the mystery and unknowability of events that occurred years or even generations before the author was born.

The memoir is a heart-pulling saga, a seemingly never-ending, impossible quest to learn the past, and to reconstruct the story.

Her childhood pain forces her to seek deeper understanding of her parents’ childhood and then their parents. In attempting to see into the past she cries to the universe, begging for insight into the very meaning of human experience and culture!
Multi-generational trauma is the subject of a book by Mark Wolynn, one of the featured speakers on the NAMW webinar recently. In “It Didn’t Start with You” Wolynn speaks of his intense, desperate search to understand the meaning of his life. After years of seeking his inner truth in southeast Asia a guru told him that to heal himself, he needed to go home and heal his relationship with his parents. Linda Joy’s memoir seems to be based on the same insight. She searches for herself by returning to her roots.

Linda Joy Myers’ two memoirs, taken together, offer fascinating insights into the project of understanding one’s self. In the first one, I accompanied her on her hero’s journey trying to move past her childhood and become a full-fledged adult. In Song of the Plains, I returned with her, staring into the wounds of her ancestors, trying to pull all those pieces together too.

The two narratives beautifully illustrate the journey that all Coming of Age memoir writers travel. Like heroes traveling the Hero’s Journey, we must “go forth” and learn how to become actors in the world. Later, when we are ready to find and share the wisdom we have learned, we “return home” (or as the Greeks call it Nostoi), to write the memoir so we can learn what the heck that journey was all about.

By the end of Song of the Plains, I was exhausted. Did she find complete answers? Of course not! Unraveling her ancestors’ tangled emotional complexity would have required going back in time and spending years in therapy with each of them. But even though there were no complete answers, the memoir did offer a meta-message. The memoir affirms that looking back to the past is one of the tools we humans use in order to grow more healthfully and wholly toward the future.

Many of us who search for our stories are grateful that Linda Joy Myers discovered this beautiful technique to heal herself. Based on her experience of memoir as a healing art, she generously supports others on that same journey.

Now, I wonder how this second memoir worked and is continuing to work in Linda Joy’s own life path. To answer those questions, I must turn to Linda Joy, herself. The interview will continue in a separate post.

For more information about the National Association of Memoir Writers, click here:

To read  my interview (2010) with Linda Joy Myers about Don’t Call Me Mother Click here

To view the Amazon page for Don’t Call Me Mother click here

To view the Amazon page for Song of the Plains click here

A book about multi-generational trauma was featured on a recent free webinar, hosted by NAMW. It Didn’t Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle by Mark Wolynn.

For excellent, haunting memoirs to find one’s self by searching within the experiences of an ancestor read these memoirs: Color of Water by James McBride, Alex’s Wake by Martin Goldsmith, The Mistress’s Daughter by A.M. Homes, Lucky Girl by Mei-Ling Hopgood

For brief descriptions and links to other posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

Getting to Know Memoir Author Sue William Silverman

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: a guide to memoirs, including yours.

Sue William Silverman’s first memoir, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You took me into the disturbing experience of childhood sexual abuse. Even though the book was written entirely from the point of view of the child, I had the feeling I was standing shoulder to shoulder with an adult trying to understand and explain her own childhood. By the time I finished reading her memoir, I felt like the two of us had taken an important journey together.

Five years later, when I read her memoir Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew, I felt like I was back in the company of an old friend. This sensation demonstrates an important feature of the Memoir Revolution. Through our stories, we are getting to know each other in the amazingly intimate method of seeing the world through an author’s eyes.

Getting to know someone intimately naturally invokes the familiar euphemism. To “know” someone in the Biblical sense means having sex with them. It turns out that Sue William Silverman has been on a lifelong journey to understand the difference between these two types of knowing. And her three memoirs lead us on the evolution from the quick sexual form of knowing to the longer one of mutual respect and support.

In her first memoir, her father tries to “know” her in the wrong way. By entering into a sexual relationship with her, he short-circuits the little girl’s need for the deep, trusting relationship her parents are supposed to teach.

As a young woman, she puts into practice the lesson her father taught her. In the memoir Love Sick, she carefully orchestrates sexual liaisons with men who have absolutely no interest in relating to her emotionally.

In the third memoir, The Pat Boone Fan Club, she tries to grow beyond those limitations by seeking to understand her place in culture. As a young woman, she adores Pat Boone from afar. Then as a news reporter she begins to turn her cultural intrigue into the written form that she could share with her readers.

Through the course of decades, starting from childhood, then young adulthood, and then middle adulthood, she attempted to become a wiser more complete person. Then, in her later adulthood, she looked back across the years. Not content with keeping her lessons to herself, she needed to organize it all into memoirs that she could share. Thanks to her hard work, Silverman generously let readers experience her long painful evolution.

Then, she pressed on again, teaching others how they too could write their stories. In her book Fearless Confessions she shows how to find and share the story of your own life, creating a magical bond between author and reader that helps all of us grow wiser.

Stephen King, in his book On Writing, points out that writing is like magic. It allows us to telepathically know what is in someone else’s mind. In fiction, this magical effect takes us inside the imagination of the writer. Memoirs are an even more intimate form of telepathy, transporting readers into the dramatically compelling events that shaped the author’s life.

In the spectrum of human relationships, memoir readers are at the opposite extreme from Silverman’ emotionally unavailable sexual partners. Memoir readers are capable of emotional, intellectual and even spiritual intimacy. We want to experience the whole story.

Note about Knowing in the Biblical Sense
Speaking of books that take us inside characters’ lives, I came across a popular book called The Story NIV, which claims the Bible is a story of God’s relationship with society. The book calls into question the expression “knowing in the Biblical sense.” If the Bible is a sort of memoir that lets us know God in an intimate way, perhaps “knowing in the Biblical sense” implies getting to know someone intimately through his or her story.

Notes
Sue William SIlverman’s Home Page
The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my book Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

In Memoirs, Misery is Simply a Step toward Hope

by Jerry Waxler

Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.

A participant in a recent memoir workshop asked me if all memoirs need to be about misery. I assured her there is no such rule. However, it is true that hard living makes good reading and at the end of a well-told story, the reader feels lifted by the triumph of overcoming hardship.

For example, in the memoir Here I Stand, Jillian Bullock starts as a young girl in a state of innocence with a loving stepfather who adores her, but he has one problem. He works for the mob and occasionally finds it necessary to assassinate friends. Eventually, his mob ties drive the family apart. Without him, Jillian loses her safe place. First, her “boy friend” rapes her. Then her mother gets involved with an abusive man. The young girl runs away, but doesn’t have anywhere to go. Homeless and starving, she ends up at the local brothel where she receives shelter in exchange for services.

When I started reading memoirs, I set limits on the topics I would read. Sex-for-money was definitely not on my list. However, the longer I study, the more I ambitious I become, craving to understand the variety of human experience. My quest has taken me into combat, physical and mental disability, extreme Muslim, Christian, and Jewish childhoods, and even occasionally to the dark side of sexuality. These stories help me untangle my attitude about situations that previously tied me in mental knots.

So I inched my way into Here I Stand, ready to bolt if it didn’t feel authentic or if I felt strangled by helplessness or despair. The deeper into the story I traveled, the more I trusted this author to maintain authorial control, guiding me through difficulties and then back out to safety. She achieves this effect through excellent story telling. Each chapter is paced well, with an enormous sense of tension and drama, and the gradual, tragic deterioration of circumstances.

The book makes this downward slide look easy, but I am in awe of the effort the author must have made in order to convert the overwhelming feelings of betrayal and humiliation into good reading. As Bullock says in the interview I conducted with her, it took years for her to untangle the heavy load of emotions and see events clearly enough to make them worthy of a story. By the time her story reaches readers, it has been transformed through the lens of the storyteller, and through that lens, the misery is only a step along the path.

When she attempts to steer through these initial setbacks, the impulses that appear appropriate to her child-mind lead her deeper into problems. I feel horror at the direction she heads, trying to imagine how she will make it back to solid ground. In the back of my mind, I’m also wondering how any of us survive the dangerous period of adolescence when we have the power to make decisions that will affect us for the rest of our lives.

Jillian’s saving grace is her determination to reclaim her dignity. Despite abysmal poverty and vulnerability, she keeps trying, until finally she claims her own “agency” — that wonderful literary term that means that the character consciously chooses her next step rather than having the next step chosen for her.

For strength in her darkest hours, she reaches out to the vision of her now-deceased stepfather. I love visionary moments in memoirs, because they provide a glimpse into the spiritual dimension, a sort of anti-gravity or pull from above. Somehow the visions give her the strength to keep going. Finally, she returns to her flawed mother, the only family she has.

After so many hardships, she manages to apply herself to school. That impulse to get an education saves her. The book is a tribute to the power of hope, effort, courage, and learning. As a reader, it answers my own prayer that people with determination can escape from hopeless situations. I am grateful to Jillian Bullock for sharing her journey with me.

The book is not just hopeful for the reader. The author also gains surprising benefits. By exposing hidden parts of herself, she magically converts secrets that could have separated her from people into pathways that connect her. Just as the younger Jillian Bullock was bolstered by those who helped her, the adult Jillian Bullock attempts to pay it forward, helping young people find their own high road. Through the memoir and her work in the community, she passes along the lessons and strength she learned on her journey.

Writing Prompt
When did you first realize that you were making choices that would take you in the direction you wanted to go? In other words, when did you assert your right to steer the ship, rather than let it be steered for you?

Notes

More examples of memoirs about falling from the grace of the family into the chaos of the world where they journey through the vulnerable dark side of sexuality and drugs, and find their way home. In all these cases, education plays a role in redemption.

Girl Bomb by Janice Erlbaum, about a girl like Bullock who runs away. Unlike Bullock, Erlbaum finds a shelter.
Slow Motion by Dani Shapiro. This girl runs away to a rich man who keeps her like a modern-day fallen concubine.

Townie by Andre Debus III about a boy who learns to use his fists to survive the mean streets of a blue-collar town.
Tweak by Nic Sheff about his descent from a privileged home to a drug-infested wasteland. His redemption is only a future promise. This darker version of the fall without a definite rise at the end is humanized by the companion memoir Beautiful Boy by David Sheff about his father who tries to save him.

Another memoir that transforms misery into hope
Diane Ackerman’s 100 Names for Love in which she cares for her husband after a massive stroke.

Click here to read an interview with Jillian Bullock, author of Here I Stand

Jillian Bullock’s Home Page

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

A Memoir That Relieves the Lifelong Burden of Shame

by Jerry Waxler

In her memoir Ragdoll Redeemed,  Dawn Novotny reveals the sexual abuse she suffered as a child. Sexual abuse hurts for a lifetime, leaving behind a coating of shame. As long as it’s hidden, the memory maintains itself in its original form. One of the remarkable benefits of the memoir revolution is that it gives us the opportunity to relieve ourselves of hidden burdens. Now that she has transferred the incident from memory to book, the truth becomes blazingly clear. The perpetrator is the shameful one. And as the story proceeds, these disturbing events take their place among the rich pantheon of her lifelong experiences.

Novotney’s memoir, Ragdoll Redeemed, is not just about her childhood. It’s about growing up and being swept along by decisions made by and for her. It turns out that in addition to shame, her childhood experiences add another sort of burden. They teach her who we she is supposed to be. So as she grows up, Novotny expects to be used, which sets the stage for the middle period of her life.

Reenactment
The key event that started Dawn Novotny across the threshold from child to adult, was an attraction to a man who happened to be son of the famous baseball player Joe Dimaggio. She reminded Joe Dimaggio junior of his famous step-mother, Marilyn Monroe. Judging from the pictures on the cover, she looks like Marilyn, and based on the parallels of their abusive childhoods, she also had similar self-esteem and family problems.

Such an attraction is a fascinating example of “reenactment” meaning Dimaggio, Jr. was selecting a partner who would let him continue the journey of his childhood. Earlier in my life, I assumed that people are driven by rational forces, and that notions like reenactment would only make sense to overly educated psychologists . But after I became a therapist, I quickly  realized that reenactment is quite normal. We are often pulled into life situations in which we attempt to replay circumstances of our childhood. The phenomenon often drives us to select partners uncannily reminiscent of our family history.

Once it became obvious to me that it happened regularly, I noticed that it turns up in memoirs, too. And Dawn Novotny’s Ragdoll Redeemed is a perfect example of crucial life decisions that were based on the reenactment of primitive childhood experience. Joe Dimaggio, Jr. wanted to reenact his childhood fantasies of being close to Marilyn Monroe. And because Novotny had been repeatedly abused by men who looked at her as a sexual object, she was willing to go along with Dimaggio’s fantasy and become an object that would fulfill his needs. How strange and fascinating!

Fortunately, Novotny’s story does not stop there. She keeps going, searching for the next step and the next, which eventually leads her past mistakes, to a search for wisdom. By showing us the long journey of being an adult, in the end, the book is about developing a deep appreciation for the narrative of a lifetime, a troubling, fascinating journey that was finally “redeemed” as she puts it, or in my words, finally makes sense.

This is the first part of my essay about Dawn Novotny’s memoir, Ragdoll Revealed. In the next parts, I will talk about her fame, lifelong search for wisdom, the structure of the memoir, and some comments on the memoirs stylistic choices.

Notes

Dawn Novotny, RagDoll Redeemed: Growing up in the Shadow of Marilyn Monroe

Dawn Novotny’s blog and home page

Related article: Sue William Silverman, Fearlessly Confessing the Dark Side of Memory in this Memoir of Sexual Abuse

Ragdoll Redeemed: Growing Up in the Shadow of Marilyn Monroe
Dawn Novotny’s Ragdoll Redeemed inspired a series of essays about the memoir writer’s search for truth. The series covers issues about shame, fame, wisdom, life review, and the craft of memoir writing.

A Memoir That Relieves the Lifelong Burden of Shame
If This Memoir Author is Famous, Maybe You Are Too
In Memoirs, Changing Thoughts Reveal the Wisdom of a Lifetime
Will the Examined Life Become a Memoir Subgenre?
How Excellent Must Your Memoir Be?

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Recovering Self-concept after Trauma

by Jerry Waxler

This is the third article in my series about using memoir reading and writing to deepen your understanding of your own self-concept. To start from the beginning, click here. Who Am I? 10 ways memoir reading and writing helps clarify identity,

Identity ought to be a stable thing. Once you find it, you should be set for life. But in reality, your ideas about yourself undergo continuous adaptation. We all adapt to the slow changes that unfold over years. And sometimes, our peaceful self-image is threatened by assaults so deep and swift they shake the foundations of sanity. Betrayal, divorce, job loss, combat trauma,  crime, abuse, disease, or death of a loved one can rip apart our trust that we know how to live in the world. We hang on using prayer, social supports, or counseling. Even as we shrink away from the parts of our life that hurt, we try to return to our routines. Eventually, the past slides into the past while often leaving behind a sticky residue.

One way to gain power over the bitterness and confusion that have been left behind by trauma is to write about it. Write the entire period, from your initial sense of safety, to the coming storm, then the actual experience. Then comes the most important part. Continue your story through the long journey to recovery.

One problem with events that assaulted you is that you feel trapped, as if the memory has become a prison. The power of the unexpected event feels like a life sentence. By writing the whole experience, you can form a more intimate familiarity with the journey back to safety.

By becoming a storyteller of your own life, you gain control over the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, finding the words that help you integrate the turn of events into your understanding of how you fit into the world. And by shaping the experience into a form that can be shared with others, you turn private sorrow into social compassion.

Memoirs that provide examples of facing and recovering from trauma

Alice Sebold, “Lucky.” She explicitly describes the rape that stole her innocence. Then for the rest of her life she attempts to reclaim her ability to once again believe she is a good person in a safe world. For my essay about Alice Sebold’s Lucky, click here

Jim McGarrah, “Temporary Sort of Peace.”Altered forever by his devastating experience as a combat soldier in Vietnam, McGarrah turned to writing, and looked for himself amidst the rubble of his own story. For my interview with author Jim McGarrah, click here

David Manchester, “Goodbye Darkness.” This veteran heals his nightmares by visiting the Pacific islands where he fought in World War II. In addition to providing a powerful historical account, he also searches for identity and tries to put his demons to rest. For my essay about combat trauma, click here.

Jill Bolte Taylor, “My Stroke of Insight.” After a stroke destroys the left-half of her brain, she must make do with only the right half. Then she takes an 8 year journey of rehabilitation, becoming whole and learning profound lessons about her brain and self. For my essay about My Stroke of Insight, click here.

Gary Presley “Seven Wheelchairs.” Presley, an athletic teenager is stricken with polio and then spends decades coming to terms with life in a wheelchair. His recovery is not of body but of spirit, and inspires me to think about the nobility of the long road of life. For my essay about Gary Presley’s memoir, click here.

My shakeup and subsequent re-discovery

I entered college with advanced placement scores in math, majored in physics and was sure I would be a doctor. After five years of anti-war protests, marijuana, and nihilistic beliefs, I was living in a garage, not talking to anyone for weeks at a time, striving to escape civilization. I suffered what might have been called a “nervous breakdown” if anyone had focused enough on me to give it a label. I unraveled my sense of self, and became story-less, a man without a workable self-concept, reducing myself to raw nerves and meaninglessness. I was a living laboratory experiment demonstrating that a healthy story is a minimum requirement for life. Looking back, I see that I spent much of my adult life recovering from the disruption. Writing my memoir has helped me gain an overview of this lifetime journey.

Writing Prompt

Write about unexpected suffering that made you feel like your previous sense of self no longer made sense. To help you see the whole experience, start with an outline from before the event when you felt safe until after, when you reclaimed your poise. Let your writing carry you forward from the quicksand back onto solid ground. If writing a dismal portion pulls you down, balance that feeling by writing scenes of hope and healing.

Notes
This method applies to trauma that you can look back on. Writing such a story can help you grow to a place where you can find wisdom about past suffering. If you are currently experiencing trauma or out-of-control feelings, please seek social support from a compassionate caregiver.

Link to other articles in this series

Who Am I? 10 ways memoir reading and writing helps clarify identity

Self-concept and memoir – launching problems and identifying with a group

Recovering self-concept after trauma

Self Concept and Memoirs: The Power of Purpose

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

More Q&A with Sue William Silverman on confessions, memoirs, and the art of writing

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: a guide to memoirs, including yours.

This is part two of an original Interview between Jerry Waxler and author Sue William Silverman. To read the first part, click here. Silverman is author of an excellent how-to book for memoir writers, “Fearless Confessions: A Writers Guide to Memoir.”

Jerry Waxler:
One of the strange and wonderful things about memoir writing is that it converts haphazard, chaotic memories into a coherent, “sensible” story. How did it feel when you first tried to reach back and search amidst those disturbing memories for a story? How did it feel to see the story coming together?

Sue William Silverman:
Yes, memoir writing is giving a coherent organization to a life!  Memoir, then, isn’t so much writing a life, but writing a slice of a life.  Each memoir needs to have its own theme, its own plot, its own narrowly defined storyline, as it were.

That’s why even though, in real life, there is a close relationship between the childhood incest and the adult sexual addiction, still, when it came to writing, these two subjects wouldn’t fit in one book.  As I mentioned above, the voice, in each, is different.

It really is empowering or exhilarating, while writing, to learn what any given event really meant.

JW:
What did it feel like after you published? Did you have periods of uncertainty, vulnerability, fear?

SWS:
Always! But the important thing is to write anyway.  Publish anyway.  Believe in yourself anyway.  I guess I’ve learned to accept having contradictory feelings at the same time.

In other words, I can be full of doubt, yet know that I still have to write, still have to publish.

JW:
Is there anything you wish you could have done or said differently? (regrets, remorse, after-shock?)

SWS:
Oh, probably a ton of things.  I’d probably even like to revise everything I’ve ever written!  But, you know, what’s done is done. And there’s always another book or essay or poem to write.

JW:
Trauma researchers like Judith Herman and Sandra Bloom have written about the collective amnesia and denial that tries to suppress a public awareness of sexual abuse and other traumatic memories. I believe memoirs, such as yours are launching an assault on this denial. That puts you on the frontline, facing the counter-forces that try to stop confessions, to blame the victim, to reduce credibility and so on. What can you tell aspiring memoir writers to help prepare them for this kind of backlash?

SWS:
Write anyway!!

Yes, there are definitely naysayers out there, critics who simply are angry at memoirists for telling the truth!  They call us navel gazers—and worse.  And, especially on radio interviews, I’ve been asked some very inappropriate questions!
My advice?  Know that you don’t have to answer any question that makes you uncomfortable. You can re-direct the questions and answers around what you want to discuss—and how you want to discuss it. Stay true to your message.
Also, when writing or promoting a memoir, I think it’s a good idea to have a strong support system on hand, friends available to help you through the process.

That said, though, it’s important to know that there are others out there who fully recognize the importance of personal narrative, and understand how it can make us, as a culture, more empathetic.

And even though the naysayers can make me angry (and I write about this in chapter nine of Fearless Confessions), my sense is that the public can’t get enough of memoir.  Readers find our stories useful—in a really good way.

So my other bit of advice is to keep writing, regardless. Everyone has a story to tell.  And all our stories are important.

JW:
Your memoir is the first I’ve read in which the molesting continues repeatedly over a period of time. Trauma experts say that repetitive trauma creates even worse after-effects and amnesia than individual incidents. What can you share about any special problems of remembering repetitive trauma, and your process of discovering these memories, and telling them in such detail?

SWS:
Actually, I never had repressed memories or anything like that. But how to remember specific details of events that happened years earlier?  Of course, no one, off the top of her head, can simply recall everything—regardless of your history.

For me, the best way to recollect the details of past events is to submerge myself in sensory imagery. For example, say I want to write about a birthday party in sixth grade.  Maybe I remember some broad brushstrokes of the party but can’t recall as many details as I’d like.  In order to do so, I begin by asking myself the following: what did the birthday party sound like, taste like, feel like, look like, smell like?

By focusing on the five senses, it’s amazing how many seemingly “lost” details we remember!  In other words, by concentrating, I try to “re-enter” scenes, submerge myself in any given past experience, and see where that leads me.

JW:
When I read a memoir, it can sometimes trigger a great deal of my own anxiety. For example, certain kinds of cruelty or violence are almost too much for me to bear. Have you had feedback from readers who have been unable to read your memoir? What advice could you give memoir readers about this issue of feeling overwhelmed or “re-traumatized” by reading explicit material of abuse and suffering?

SWS:
Oh, that’s such a personal decision.  I’ve had people tell me they can only read my books in short snippets.  A page here, a page there.

But other people tell me they read my books straight through from beginning to end.  Just because of their own anxiety, they want to know how the book ends. Of course, on an intellectual level, they know I’m all right; after all, I wrote the book.  But on an emotional level, they want to keep reading just to make sure I’m okay.  Which I find very caring and lovely.

Additionally, some people have told me that they aren’t ready to read my books at all, but they feel a sense of comfort just having the books on their bookcases, knowing the books are there, when they’re ready.

JW:

Many memoir and journaling advocates believe that writing about trauma helps heal from it. What has been your experience?

SWS:
Yes, there is that element to this, for sure.  Writing is instrumental in helping me understand the trauma, give it a context, understand the metaphors around it.

Too, while it can be painful to write about painful events, still, I reached the point that just the opposite ultimately became true: that, with each word, the pain lessened, as if I extracted it one word at a time.

Notes
This interview is part of the blog book tour for Women on Writing.  To read other entries in the blog tour, including reviews, interviews, and essays, click here to visit the Women on Writing blog.

To learn more about Sue William Silverman, visit her website by clicking here.

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my book Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Author Sue William Silverman Talks About Confessions, Memoirs, and the Craft of Writing

by Jerry Waxler

To help spread the word about the intimate, creative craft of memoir writing, I regularly network with other authors who are trying to do the same. Recently I found an energetic “memoir advocate” Sue William Silverman, author of an excellent how-to book for memoir writers, “Fearless Confessions: A Writers Guide to Memoir.” Silverman is a careful thinker, picking apart the process of memoir writing, intensely studying each part, and then not merely putting them back together but, showing the reader how to do it, too. I am impressed by the generosity with which she offers advice, insight, and enthusiasm. I love her treatment of metaphor, her thoughts about confession, and the excellent explanation of the difference between memoir and autobiography. When I finished reading “Fearless Confessions” I wanted more of her work.

Silverman has also published two award wining memoirs, and both at the leading edge of full-disclosure, gritty examples of the willingness of memoir authors to reveal their hidden worlds. One about child sexual abuse is called “Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You.” By writing about this topic, she has conquered one of the most daunting obstacles any memoir writer must face, revealing taboo parts of her life. (To see my review of the book click here.)

After reading Silverman’s how-to book for memoir writers, and her own memoir about child abuse, I spoke with her to gain further insight into her thoughts and feelings about sharing memories with strangers. Read Part 1 of this original author interview below.

Jerry Waxler:
To earn the right to share their stories in public, memoir writers need to write with a certain amount of style. In other words, sentences must be pleasing enough to propel a reader from page to page. I find your memoir about child-abuse, “Because I Remember Terror, Father” to be surprisingly compelling, in part because I enjoy your verbal imagery. You pour sensory information as if it were a painter’s palette.

Could you tell us about your own process of developing the writer’s art? What was your experience? What advice can you give aspiring writers so they can develop their own?

Sue William Silverman:
Thank you so much! This is high praise, indeed.

Before that first memoir was published, I read a lot of craft books, and I also received a Master of Fine Arts degree in a creative writing program. While that memoir is my first published book, I have many unpublished books (novels) lying around that will never see the light of day! But writing those books was not a waste of time.  I was perfecting my craft.  Paying my dues, as it were.

So my best advice is to understand that writing is a process—a slow process—which is true for all the arts.  But ultimately the hard work pays off, and it’s worth it. While writing, then, be patient with yourself.   But also know that your story is important!  So you want to take the time and care in the writing of it, to make it the best book possible. It’s important to honor your story in this way.

JW:
I love the way you explain things in your book “Fearless Confessions.” For example, I found your explanation of the difference between an autobiography and a memoir to be one of the best I’ve seen. Your non-fiction voice is clear and helpful, and quite different from the lyrical storyteller’s voice in “Terror Father.”

Did you develop the two voices at the same time or two different parts of your life? Did you receive formal training in each of these voices?

SWS:
I’m so pleased and relieved that you find the nonfiction voice in “Fearless Confessions” clear!  Thank you!

And, you’re right: it is a much different voice from the one I use in my creative work.  In fact, on some level, everything I write has its own voice.

That’s the interesting thing about voice!  Many writing instructors tell beginning writers to “find their voice.”  What I believe, however, is that each piece of writing needs its own voice.  What is the sound of the voice that best fits the topic at hand?

In fact, each of my memoirs has, to some extent, a different voice as well.  The voice in Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You is the voice or sound of a wounded girl.  On the other hand, in Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction, the voice is tougher, edgier—the voice of an addict.  We all have many literary voices—just as we all have many different aspects of our personalities!  The key is to discover the right voice for your subject matter.

JW:
When did you first realize you wanted to write about the disturbing experiences of child abuse?

SWS:
Oh, good question!  Well, for years I tried writing my true story as fiction—as novels.  All those unpublished novels I mentioned are, on some level, about incest or sexual addiction.

But the novels didn’t work.  For me, to fictionalize my story (trying to tell the truth—but not), made the voice sound emotionally unauthentic.  After about ten or so years of this, I finally, at the urging of my therapist, switched to memoir, or creative nonfiction.

That’s not to say that other writers can’t tell their stories as novels or poetry.  Many writers do just that—and do it brilliantly.  For me, though, it didn’t work.

JW:

When did you first decide to share your story with the world?

SWS:
Initially, I always write for myself, in that it’s easier if I “tell myself” that no one else will ever read what I’m writing. That takes some pressure off and allows me to be more emotionally authentic—not sugarcoating stuff.

That said, in the back of my mind, I also know that I will try to publish whatever I write.  That’s what writers do!  We send our work out into the world.  Publishing is part of the process.

But that’s not to say that everyone has to try to publish.  Not at all. The most important thing is the writing itself, getting the story down on paper.

JW:
Society trains us to hide certain things about ourselves, because to reveal them would be shameful. Shame is a powerful emotion that blocks many aspiring memoir writers. Your memoir of having been molested as a child offers an extreme example of revealing the type of material many victims of abuse intend to take to their grave. How were you able to overcome these silencing emotions of shame and fear, and expose your secrets?

SWS:
The memoirist James McBride, author of “The Color of Water” says, “Fear is a killer of good literature.”  And I think he’s right. It does take a lot to overcome it, to feel brave or courageous enough to know that it’s okay to tell your story. More than that: It’s crucial to tell your story.

For me—although of course this wouldn’t be true for everyone—I think I needed a few years of therapy to gather enough courage to speak my own truths.  Then, ultimately (and ironically), it became easier to tell my truth than to use all that energy holding it back, staying silent.

Ultimately, I found that putting my story out there was rewarding and empowering!  I receive many e-mails from readers, who, in effect, thank me for telling their story, too.  That is a powerful message. After years of silence, I learn that I have a voice!

Notes
This is part 1 of a two part interview with Sue William Silverman. To read the second part, click here.

This interview is part of the blog book tour for Women on Writing.  To read other entries in the blog tour, including reviews, interviews, and essays, click here to visit the Women on Writing blog.

To learn more about Sue William Silverman, visit her website by clicking here.

Fearlessly Confessing the Dark Side of Memory in this Memoir of Sexual Abuse

by Jerry Waxler

For more insight into the power and importance of memoirs, read the Memoir Revolution and learn why now is the perfect time to write your own.

When I talk to people about writing memoirs, sometimes they chuckle nervously and say, “Oh, I don’t want to remember all of that.” When I first heard this reaction, it puzzled me. The speaker appeared to assume that writing about their past will force them to divulge information they would rather keep quiet. It’s as if they were afraid that by merely writing their past, their secrets would fly out into the air.

As I learned more stories and dug deeper into my own, I found that some dark memories are so compelling they draw you in and frighten or upset you. When you try to seal them back in their crypt, they continue to haunt. The courageous memoirist actively faces these fears and crafts them into stories. Under the guidance of our inner storyteller we gain power over our own memories.

Recently I heard about a memoir that offers an extreme example of this challenge. Throughout her childhood, Sue William Silverman was molested repeatedly by her father, a successful banker and diplomat. The assaults took place within the walls of their home where his manipulation and rage silenced every protest before it was uttered. Silverman’s memoir “Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You” offers the tragic story of a childhood, betrayed by the adult who was supposed to care for her.

At first, the topic of this memoir horrified me. I would have given it a wide berth, like crossing the street to avoid passing a beggar. And yet such is the magic of memoirs that it has allowed me to explore situations I would rather avoid. Reading is a powerful form of empathy. Now I pressed past my reluctance to share her experience.

I found the book disturbing as expected, and yet, in a way inspiring because of its frankness. It offers another validation that memoirs can take me into the dark pockets of the human condition. Researchers have found that a staggering percentage of children are abused. (see note) And despite the widely known statistics the human story of their plight is hidden from view. Few of us know what to say about this upsetting and confusing subject, and so the topic is avoided in polite company.

The public, with its voracious appetite for sound bites and quick solutions, is occasionally exposed to pleas for harsher sentences for the few predators who are caught. Meanwhile, abuse continues unabated, most of it taking place privately and quietly within the home.

While Silverman’s memoir does not offer a political or legal solution, it does hint at a reasonable first step. By sharing the story of the psychological damage, the trauma and breach of trust, we collectively shine light into the darkness of these private hells. Without such stories, sexual abuse is just a word, a statistic, devoid of the sad terror and emotional truths of each situation.

The silence that protects victims also protects perpetrators

Victims have important reasons for hiding the things that happened to them. There is the stigma of shame, often made worse because the victim is made to feel responsible. And there is the risk of angering the perpetrator. Until the memoir age, many wounded people have never felt empowered to share their stories. Now more people are telling and more listening. In my optimistic vision, I see memoirs tearing down walls, and I feel a surge of hope like the crowds who were swinging sledge hammers in the final hours of the Berlin Wall.

A polished voice helps to earn the public’s ear

Writing in a journal allows us to turn our feelings into words, and helps us gain power over our own thoughts. However, if you want to go to the next step and tell your story to the public, you need two more things. One is the courage to publish. And the other is the willingness to craft the experience into a readable form. Every writer discovers they need to develop skills in order to earn readers, and memoir writers are no different.

In this aspect of confession, Silverman excels. Through her writing skills, she engages my reader’s mind, moving me through each scene and then on to the next. I feel protected by her authorial presence, which occasionally cools me with beautiful language, like a drizzle tickling my skin on a hot summer day.

Her terrible story written in pleasing language, transforms me from a complete stranger to an empathetic listener, learning about the strange, complex desperate love-hatred between father and daughter. I deepen my understanding of her as an individual, and also of us as a race, perceiving the vast and sometimes horrifying range of human experience.

She also wrote a book to help you write your memoir
Silverman’s memoir offers an excellent model of good writing about bad memories. After writing two memoirs, she recently published a guide that can help anyone tell their story. “Fearless Confessions, a Writers Guide to Memoir” offers a roadmap through this difficult terrain.

Statistics about Child Abuse
If you think this is an isolated problem, you are probably under that impression because of the impenetrable silence that surrounds it. For statistics, click here.

For more on Sue William Silverman:

Click here for her website.

Click here for her Women On Writing Blog Tour

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

Writing for Community – or – When Going Public Can Save Dignity and Lives

by Jerry Waxler

Read my book, Memoir Revolution, about how turning your life into a story can change the world.

Author Naomi Gal invited me to attend her book signing at Moravian Book Shop, an independent book store in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. In her native Israel, Gal was a novelist. Now she teaches creative writing at Moravian College. However, the event at the bookstore related to another aspect of her life. Gal leads a creative group at Turning Point, a shelter for abused women, and their collected testimonials were published in the book “Free To Be.” Last year, I interviewed Gal, asking her how life influences fiction. Now, I was looking to her latest project to learn another way real life finds its way to the page.

I have heard from authors that book signings can be lonely affairs, so I was surprised to see people streaming in to the store, one of them carrying a tray of snacks. The atmosphere seemed festive. I picked up a copy of the book and flipped through it. The entries were a mix of poetry and prose, revealing private worlds of fearful silence. In the expression of that danger, I felt the stirring of true courage.

I stood in the line that extended from Gal back into the store, and chatted with a writer I know from the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group. The line had been moving slowly, and when I reached the front, I understood why. Naomi was showering each of us with warm thanks and a few moments of chatter. By that time, the crowd had swelled to fifty or sixty and the hubbub swelled to a din. Despite the serious subject matter, everyone seemed courteous and friendly, happy to be together.

Then, a moderator interrupted the signing so Naomi could make a short speech, which consisted almost entirely of effusive thanks to the project’s many contributors. She praised the Turning Point organization and its leaders, and the writers. She also thanked Moravian College’s sorority, Alpha Sigma Alpha, who helped gather the pieces and publish the book.

She went on to explain that many of the pieces in the collection were anonymous, because one of the tragedies of domestic abuse is that defiance can trigger aggression and even deadly force. Several contributors stepped forward to read their work, poems about their need to escape their abusers, and to demand better treatment in their own home. One woman used her full name. The reason for her lack of fear was that she had already lost a daughter to domestic violence. The shift from festivity to dark reality shook me. How awful that people can hurt each other. The human condition can be so cruel.

And then the readings were over, and the organizer asked everyone to buy books, and that the money would go to supporting the women’s shelter. Someone said they were almost sold out. A small cheer went up, and the sorority leader choked up as she thanked everyone who had participated, and Naomi reached over to hug her. The hubbub and the mingling started again.

I felt I had witnessed a powerful event. These women found relief from their suffering at Turning Point where they received shelter and guidance, and forged bonds with each other. Creative writing turned them inward, a tool that helped them cope and grow. Now publishing turned their pain from private to public, to let the rest of us know what is going on in our midst. By sharing their words, they gave us an opportunity to reach back towards them, to offer hope and support.

The testimonials served a different purpose than most memoirs. Rather than being selected for literary merit or completeness of story, these pieces were selected for their moral courage and willingness to communicate. And while this particular book may not reach the best seller charts, its effects radiate far beyond these particular individuals. The gathering gives witness to the impact of the written word and I visualize similar groups in other communities, reaching out to each other to hear words that need to be spoken.

On the way out of the store, I glanced at the display of gourmet chocolates. The woman behind the counter caught my eye and asked, “Do you like pistachios?” I nodded and with a conspiratorial smile she handed me a chocolate covered one. The explosion of good taste jolted me back into my body. Out on the streets of historic Bethlehem, holding my copy of “Free to Be” and a bag of candy, the sun still yellow in the early spring evening, I strolled past quaint gift shops and buildings dating from the 18th century. Surrounded by a sense of normalcy and safety, I thought of a passage from Kate Braestrup’s memoir, “Here if you need me.”

In her work as a police chaplain, Braestrup often pondered suffering. After a particularly grisly kidnap and murder, she asks herself the age-old question, “How can a loving God permit the existence of evil?” Then she attempts to answer it. First she considers the power of evil, quoting the devil’s brag “We are legion.” Then Braestrup considers all the kind people who she regularly witnesses, who come pouring out of their homes to give aid to those who suffer. These neighbors and friends attempt to spread love in order to ease the burden. Swelling with the compassion and generosity of her own heart and the people she routinely encounters, Braestrup refutes the devil’s claim. “No,” she says, “We are legion.”

Note and Links for this Essay
Turning Point, Lehigh Valley Shelter for Women

Moravian Book Shop, Independent book and gift store in historic Bethlehem PA

Read my interview with Naomi Gal about the relationship between fiction and fact.

Read my essay about Kate Braestrup’s exploration of Good and Evil

Writers in the Lehigh Valley – visit the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group

Mothers and Daughters Don’t Always Mix

by Jerry Waxler

Linda Joy Myers’ mother wanted to have fun, so she abandoned her little girl and moved from the Great Plains to the big city of Chicago. Linda Joy was raised by her grandmother, an erratic woman given to harsh rules enforced by rage. Linda Joy grew up with a heavy load of disheartening memories.

After years of therapy, trying to sort out her feelings about her self-involved and mentally abusive caregivers, she began to write it all down. That first attempt turned out to be the beginning of a long journey. She tried again and again, and with each iteration, her story became more readable and less toxic than the one before. It took fifteen years from her first attempt to the publication of her memoir, “Don’t Call Me Mother.”

This book demonstrates the power of persistence. By crafting the story until she got it right, Linda Joy Myers discovered amidst the wreckage of that little girl’s childhood an intact human being, complete with courage, confidence, and dreams. Storytelling transformed her heartbreaking childhood into one stage in a much longer saga. Her suffering and then her healing provide both a tragedy and an inspiration about the wisdom a human can achieve in one life time.

In the preface of “Don’t Call Me Mother” she says, “Wrestling with words and images, putting myself into the story as a character, in the first person, present tense, forced me to integrate the self that I was with the witness I have become. This memoir has given me a profound sense of completion with the past, and a wonderful freedom. As I healed through the writing of this book, it too has evolved into a love song… The women who had once been my curses — my eccentric, wild, emotion-wracked mother and grandmother-became my teachers.”

Click here for Linda Joy Myers’ home page:
Click here for the Amazon page for her book:

I joined the author on her healing journey
Even if she had not told me that writing the book helped her heal, I can feel it for myself. I join this little girl, cringing with her during Grandma’s rages, and feeling relieved when they go on their annual trip to visit great grandmother, her mother’s mother’s mother, the most stable figure in Linda Joy’s childhood. Looking for sighs of relief, of beauty and pride, I pour my heart into each moment of pleasure – her passion for cello playing; the encouragement of her music teacher; her first boy friend, a fellow musician; the wheat fields, like golden oceans, that offer a sense of unlimited space.

As she begins to plan for college I lean forward into the future with her, straining towards escape from her stifling childhood, and longing for the day when she will be old enough and balanced enough to write the book I hold in my hands. Imagining that day converts horror to hope, knowing that the little girl grew up to write this story.

Breaking the code of silence

In addition to rejection by her mother and erratic and often abusive behavior of her grandmother, Linda Joy also fended off inappropriate sexual advances from her father during his annual visit. The people who gave her life used their power to confuse and undermine her. And like most abused kids, she learned the code of silence.

I have heard many people in memoir workshops struggle with such memories, explaining, “I wouldn’t want to talk about my family in that way. It would be disrespectful.” Their reticence followed them into adulthood and continues to foster their shame.

Linda Joy’s mastery over her secrets, provides an inspiring example for any writer who longs to create a whole story from disturbing raw material. Such a journey towards openness takes you across treacherous internal terrain, overcoming the fears and confusion that have always protected these secrets.  Then, you face additional challenges from people who don’t want to hear about child abuse. “Who wants to know things like that?” “That can’t be true.” “You’re exaggerating.” “You’re making excuses.” Only gradually do the walls of shame and secrecy break down. Through experimentation, the stories make sense, expose wounds, let in light, and integrate the past in one continuous whole that brings you to a healthier present and increases your enthusiasm for the future.

The reader and writer look for common ground

When you pick up a book, any book, you naturally ask yourself, “Why should I share my time and energy walking in this author’s shoes on this particular journey?” Of course, all readable books contain some crucial elements. They use polished prose, create dramatic tension, and then successfully resolve that tension. “Don’t Call Me Mother” succeeds in all these standard areas. In addition to generic qualities, each book has particular virtues. For me, the virtue of “Don’t Call Me Mother” is that through the magic of storytelling she brings her childhood to life, and then transforms it in front of my eyes. I share the story of her abuse, and then as she grows, I share the triumph of her eventual self-understanding.

The writer also asks questions. “How do I find and please my audience?” Another way to ask this question is “Who will want to read my book, and why?” The writer’s questions turn out to be mirrors of the ones asked by readers. When the writer’s answer matches the reader’s, two people who have never met are ready to spend hours in each other’s company.

Writing Prompt
Discovering why someone will read your story becomes part your quest as you try to open your life to the reading public. Describe the person who will read your book, and what questions or curiosities would your book address?

Another question, perhaps less obvious but just as important is, “Who will not want to read this book?” Since most of us would like to be loved by everyone, it might be hard to admit that not everyone is going to become a fan. By working out in advance who is not going to be one of your readers, you can focus more on pleasing the people who like you and letting the others read some other book.

Out of triumph, the desire to help others
In addition to helping herself, Linda Joy’s passion for finding the story of her own life has evolved into a passion to help others do the same. She offers individual counseling in the Berkeley area, teaches workshops, and has founded The National Association of Memoir Writers, an internet organization, that brings memoir writers together, and offers instruction and programs to help people take the journey of developing their own memoir.

For many years, Linda Joy dropped the “Joy” from her name, feeling it didn’t accurately reflect her character. Recently she has reintroduced it, choosing to allow the quality of happiness back into her name. While her memoir contains many deep and painful moments, her book reminds me of John Kennedy who said, “The ancient Greek definition of happiness was the full use of your powers along lines of excellence.” According to this definition, Linda Joy’s life offers all of us cause for joyful celebration.

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